Volume 1, Issue 5, 2016

Jola Peter Meinke, Eckerd College

hurt, I could only mutter things like “Oh my,” hoping they’d recognize it as

Illustration by Jeanne Meinke

Polish bus drivers are naturally optimistic, and thus are constantly being surprised when caught by red lights. On those rare times when the bus wasn’t crowded and it pulled to a suicide stop, I’ve seen a baby carriage shoot down the center aisle like a bowling ball. Poles are used to this, and there’s always someone who stops the carriage before it goes out the front window. More typically, though, the bus will be close-packed—people crammed in, carrying everything from stepladders to enormous cabbages— and when the driver hits the brakes, everyone is pressed so intimately against one another, there’s nothing to do but roll your eyes or propose marriage. I’ve been prevented from doing the latter by my inadequacy with the language. Pressed against women so beautiful that they made my teeth

English and reply in kind, which they never did. I met Jola on the bus. It was a cold and rainy September afternoon, and I hadn’t been in Warsaw long. I had fought my way onto the bus, but had been muscled backward on the steps by some very tough old ladies, and the door closed painfully on my foot. “Stop the bus!” I yelled. “Help!” Some savior pushed the right button and the door opened, but the crowd was so thick, I was pushed even farther out, and this time the door whacked me on my arms and shoulder before popping me permanently inside, except for the bottom of my raincoat. I was furious. “Damn this bus!” I shouted. “And damn everybody in it!” In my two weeks in Warsaw no one had understood a word I said, and I was getting used to speaking into a void.

“That’s really not necessary, or even

I’d even seen them working over a

very intelligent,” said a woman sitting

drunk or two. I wanted nothing to do

in the seat nearest the door.

with them. And because Poles for the

My anger, however, was stronger

most part ride the buses and trams in

than my surprise. “Listen,” I said, “in

total silence, our encounter was

America if the buses got crowded like

particularly strange. I went home and

this, we’d tip them over and burn

made myself a Polish martini: straight


Zytnia vodka with an olive swiped from

“Well,” the woman said, “that may be

the commissary tossed in. A terrific

constructive but it’s not our way. We

drink. I felt a lot better and forgot the

just keep our feet out of the doors.”

whole thing. After a few of those drinks

We were at the next stop, and I was backed out of the bus by passengers

I would forget who I was. I was—am—Paul Willis, that’s who. I

getting off and buffeted by people

live in a modest condo in Tampa,

trying to get on at the same time. I

illustrate magazine stories and, every

decided to walk the rest of the way,

once in a while, a cover. That’s where

despite the rain, and as I did I thought

the real money is—in covers. I got by

about that brief conversation.

all right (Florida has no income tax),

I’d been too upset to gather more

but my ex-wife Alison had always

than a vague impression of an

wanted me to teach; she said it was

attractive, well-dressed woman about

because the money would be steadier,

my age (which is thirty-two) who spoke

but secretly I thought she wanted to be

English with only a slight accent. What

able to say she was the wife of a

stuck with me was the feeling that

professor. Professors are reliable,

she’d been staring at me, even after I

unlike artists. Still, she was right—we

left the bus and began walking away. It

were always short of money until she

made me nervous. Was she going to

got a job. And that was what did us in.

report me to the police? I didn’t know

My conclusion after our breakup

Polish law—maybe you’re not allowed

was that marriage is dependent on the

to swear on buses. Creating a

dependence of women. Once Alison

Disturbance in a Public Vehicle. I’d

was independent, what did she need

been warned about the Warsaw police;

me for? We had no children, neither of

us possessing the patience to deal with

Mainly I needed a change. Poland

them. But marriage must have an

was going to fix me up, and it did,

element of need; desire’s too unstable

although not at first.

a vehicle, and when that disappears

Jola was waiting for me three days

you may as well get out the shredder.

later when I got on the bus at

Alison shredded me and then threw me

Sobieskiego, the same spot as before.


I recognized her right away. She

Of course, this is a story about Jola,

moved a large bag of groceries from

not Alison. We were divorced and that’s

the seat next to her and motioned for

all. Then Poland beckoned.

me to sit down. I wasn’t used to sitting

Why Poland? I was commissioned to

when there were women standing, but

illustrate a large double-volume

I didn’t want to cause an international

collection of Polish fairy tales. This was

public incident, so I sat down. (”You

1978 and the new Pope and Isaac

phony pig,” Alison would have said).

Bashevis Singer’s winning the Nobel

The bag was too big for Jola, and with

Prize had given a strong impetus to the

much idiotic nodding and smiling we

Polish-American market. I had a

transferred it to my lap, putting my leg

brilliant idea. Wouldn’t the publishers

to sleep within two stops.

want to send me over there, for

“Your foot is better?” she asked.

authenticity? So I applied all over, at

“Yes, fine,” I said. “Wonderful.”

magazines from New York to L.A., and

She had large gray eyes, a

wound up with a bagful of commissions

gracefully curved nose and a positively

from food, sport, art, music magazines

sinful lower lip. She was so bundled up,

(“I’ll go to Chopin’s house,” I told

that’s about all I could tell.

them)—anyone who wanted sketches of things Polish. Combined with a check

“I hope you are enjoying your time in Poland,” she said.

and encouragement from the fairy tale

“Oh yes,” I lied. “Very much!”

folks, I gathered enough together to

“Yes,” she agreed, smiling. “Poland is

finance a reasonably luxurious six

like living in prison with wonderful

months in Warsaw.

people and good music.” I couldn’t think of anything to say to this, so I tried shifting the bag to my

other leg. Why was she smiling? Was this some sort of test? “You’re an American, I can tell,” she said. “That’s right. Paul Willis, from Tampa, Florida.” “The Large Orange,” she said. That

Conversation with Poles in those days was a tricky business. The natural ebb and flow of questions was more shadowy in Poland than in sunny Tampa. They thought obliquely, experts at reading between the lines. If we see a photograph of an accident, for

stopped me again. Did she think all

example, we might wonder who was

American cities had nicknames about

hurt, what the damages were. A Pole

fruits and vegetables? Madison, the Big

was likely to think, Why is that man in

Cheese. Boston the Little Bean.

the raincoat standing next to the

But within a few stops I had told her

woman with the briefcase? And there

my age, what I was doing in Warsaw

were so many topics that seemed

and where I was doing it. I didn’t even

difficult to discuss: communism, the

know her name. When I got up to leave

economy, Secretary Gierek, the Jewish

I nearly fell to my numb knees, and she

situation, strikes in the northern cities.

caught me by my elbow. “My name is Jola Malicka,” she said

At the same time, they were often outspoken about politics. A bus driver

as I was about to get off the bus. I was

would drive past the Russian-built

staying at the Bristol Hotel, a truly

Palace of Culture and spit noisily out

decadent bourgeois building and one of

the window. Shortly after my arrival

the few authentic structures left

someone blew up a bank in downtown

standing by the Nazis, who had

Warsaw, and the party-line papers said

quartered there. My room was

it was a gas explosion. I overheard

spacious, the bed set in an alcove

some Poles at the Embassy joking that,

separated from the main section by a

because there were no gas lines into

curtain. The bar downstairs was

that building, Gierek was sure to be

charming, the food terrible (the bread

nominated for the Nobel Prize in

seemed to harden between bites), the

Physics for changing electricity into

service slow, the music—usually a

gas. It all kept me unbalanced, and Jola

hunched-over pianist—excellent. I

just added to it. Was she a dissident or

thought of what Jola had said.

a secret-service person trying me out,

or a pretty young woman with a typical

doing. Poland doesn’t advertise itself

Polish sense of humor? Whatever, I

very well, she said.

wanted no part of it. I simply wanted to do my work. Actually, I wasn’t doing much work.

She lived in an ugly Russian-built apartment complex right on Sobieskiego, which was on a direct line

I walked around, I took some

from the Bristol and easy for me to

photographs. I read in the library of the

find. With a slight fluttering of nerves—

American embassy. I seemed to sleep a

hopeful for a seduction, fearful of an

lot. I spent my time writing to friends,

entrapment—I got on the bus and

sent postcards to my nieces and


nephews, and drank coffee in the

Her apartment, on the third floor,

Bristol café. I worked on some

was striking. In counterpoint to the

desultory sketches, but basically

chintzy construction of the building, her

decided that I could do it all from

furniture was matched, solid and old,

photographs of Stare Miasto, the

giving the impression of heirlooms that

ancient center of Warsaw rebuilt in

have seen better surroundings. The

gorgeous detail after the Germans blew

walls were covered with artwork and

it up at the end of the War. I could take

posters that at first glance seemed

all my photos home and work in the

grotesque; a closer look confirmed it—

much more congenial weather and

snakes crawled out of eye sockets,

atmosphere of my studio in Tampa. But

potatoes sprouted from skulls, books

I was too embarrassed to go home


early. About a week after our second meeting I received a note from Jola, brought by the hotel porter. She invited

“You can see the psychological state of our country,” she said as I stared at them. There were just two other guests

me to a small party with English-

there—a tall, slender woman named

speaking Poles who, she wrote, could

Bozena, somewhat younger than Jola;

help me in my picture-gathering and

and a bearded, shaggy-haired man

introduce me to the Polish life in a

about my size—that is to say, average

more authentic manner than my library

build, five feet nine inches. A nice

research and scattered walking was

comfortable height, my mother used to

say as I stared enviously at my taller

time than Bozena and Pawel, who held

younger brothers.

regular jobs at the Uniwersytet

“Good evening,” the man said. “I am

Warszawski of a confusingly scholastic

Pawel Woźniak. We have almost the


same name.” His eyes were humorous

turned out that Bo was staying in Jola’s

and intelligent, peeking out from all

apartment that evening, and Pawel and

that hair. His English was excellent.

I headed home at the same time. He

Bozena’s—“Call me please Bo”—was

was carrying a large parcel in a cheap


plastic bag.

Jola was a knockout. She wore a

Somewhat disappointingly, it

As we left each other at the bus

deep-blue formal dress that was both

stop he handed me a thick roll of about

modest and flattering to her full figure.

twenty posters.

A thin silver necklace and silver

“This is to remember me by,” he said.

earrings accentuated her long neck;

“These are posters by the best Polish

she had knotted her hair gracefully on

artists—Starowicki and the rest—most

top of her head, without pins—I was

of them signed. You will understand

later to see her perform this miraculous

Poland by studying them.”

operation—giving her a queenly bearing. And she was as good as her word. The three of them all had specific

“Oh no,” I said, truly moved. “I can’t accept this many. This is too much.” He had a very firm manner, and

and helpful suggestions as to where I

pressed them on me. “Let us just say

should take photographs or make

that I am repaying American

sketches: certain restaurants, cafés,

generosity.” We shook hands as my bus

markets, buildings, museums, galleries,

pulled in. “I hope we meet again,” he

concert halls, sports arenas. I wrote it

said. But we never did.

all down furiously, even when I didn’t

My first date with Jola was at the

understand what they were saying,

National Tennis Stadium to watch a

trying to seem like a responsible and

Davis Cup match—Puchar Davisa—

serious American. By the time the

between Poland and Italy. The large

evening was over, it was clear that Jola

crowd was dominated by about a dozen

had taken me under her wing. She was

voluble Italians, chanting the names of

a free-lance translator

their players; “Bar-ra-ZAT-ti” or “Pa-

and had more

nat-TA,” they yelled, while the Poles sat

smattering of premature white hair to

politely applauding the spectacular

make it dignified.

play. Toward the end, a single Pole,

During the next few weeks I

perhaps overcome by sips of vodka,

seemed to make progress on all fronts.

began chanting back, “Mac-a-RO-ni!”

With Jola I took hundreds of

and occasionally, mysteriously, in

photographs, made notes and sketches.

English, “Su-per-MAR-ket!” But few

We saw “Hamlet” by William Szekspir,

voices joined him.

listened to Chopin outdoors in Łazienki

It was a wonderful day. We had dinner in a Hungarian restaurant. We walked around Warsaw. On Krakowskie Przedmieście we sat down near the old statue of Copernicus holding his celestial sphere, and fed red squirrels and pigeons. She took me to a Pewex store that took only “hard currency” (dollars, francs, marks and pounds), and I bought some wooden dolls for my niece. I was about to fall in love. In Stare Miasto she took a little skip to catch up to me, and I was a goner. She even admired my moustache, which was the irresistible thing to do. Alison once told me—she was one of those

Park, concerts at the Filharmonia Narodowa; we saw “La Vie Parisienne”— Życie Paryskie —at the Operetka Warszawska; we bought goat cheese at the open market. Poland became suddenly rich for me, and has remained that way ever since. And our relationship hadn’t stood still. We had drinks in my poster-filled room at the Bristol and in her apartment, and had gone considerably past the good-night kiss. Jola wasn’t at all coy, but like some kind of Polish Cinderella, each midnight she slipped away. We often talked about traveling.

people who love to tell the truth,

She’d been to England (long ago),

especially if it hurts—that I had the

Rumania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and

most undistinguished face she had ever seen. This ultimately proved helpful: I grew my moustache, about which I’m extraordinarily vain. It’s thick and bushy, still black, with just a

I had been all through Europe with Alison. When I mentioned how Alison and I had liked West Berlin, she exclaimed that she’d love to see it. “Come with me,” I said. “I’ll take you there.”

Her gray eyes opened wider, and I

she told me. Nothing could have been

could feel myself falling into them.

further from my mind than

Then she smiled and took my hand.

Schopenhauer. Jola had a friend with

“Tak,” she said. “Yes. Why not? That sounds like a fine idea.” Nothing is easy in Poland, and there

an apartment in the resort town of Sopot, next to Gdansk; the friend wanted to visit Warsaw, so they agreed

were many arrangements to make, but

to exchange apartments for a week.

the American embassy people

We’d stop in Sopot overnight, fly to

smoothed my way. They like me

Berlin the next morning, stay four days

because I had got my room on my own,

and then return for a couple of days to

changed money on the black market

see Gdansk.

without bothering them, and didn’t

“This is not too expensive for you?”

pester them for commissary privileges.

she asked anxiously. I stuck a 1000-

They let me use the library and buy

zloty note in my mouth and began

stamps, and every once in a while I’d

chewing it; she laughed and pulled it

stroll through the commissary “on the

out. “You’re crazy,” she said. “You don’t

way to buy stamps,” and swipe a jar of

know anything about money.”

olives. Greg Smith, the cultural

She was right. But I did know I

attaché, told me I was much more

could get a thousand zlotys for nine

independent than the Fulbright

dollars on the black market, though the

professors who supposedly came for a

official rate was more than forty

Polish experience, and then fell all over

dollars. I was in good shape. I was

one another scratching to get at the

standing on my head out of sheer

peanut butter in the commissary. He


helped get my visa and airplane ticket. Jola’s visa was slow coming

We arrived in Sopot by train in the dead of winter. The boardwalk and the

through, but she got it. She had the

town itself were practically deserted,

idea of flying from the Baltic port of

except for the restless gulls wheeling

Gdansk; it was a little cheaper, and she

and dipping. The emptiness of it all

could show me the area before I

delighted Jola.

showed her West Berlin. “It’s the birthplace of Schopenhauer, you know,”

“Poles do not understand the American fad of togetherness,” she

said. “We spend most of our energy trying to find some time, some place,

“You were marvelous,” I said. She smiled sleepily. “I couldn’t have

to be alone. I suppose it’s because we

done it alone!” She sat up and began to

have to ride crowded buses and trams

put up her hair with deft fingers.

so much. Of course,” she added, “we

“That’s amazing,” I said, “but it’s too

keep our feet out of the doors,” and she

early . . .” Jola smiled again. “You’re

put her head on my shoulder and gave

absolutely right.” Once more she let it

me the wide-eyed look.

down, and I pulled her to me.

We ate at the imposing Grand

Considerably later, I awoke in the

Hotel, sharing the large dining hall with

cold morning light. I could hear the

only one other couple. In America, this

shower running and I put the pillow

would be closed in a week. I stretched

over my head, dozing on and off, until I

out our dinner with an after-dinner

realized that the shower must have

drink and got greatly interested in the

been going for at least an hour. Either

scenery on our walk back to our

Jola had left the water running or she


was going to shrivel up like a prune.

I was suddenly feeling like that

I got out of bed, stretching happily,

early Polish king Boleslaw the Shy. Not

and walked into the bathroom. She

so Jola. As I closed the door she

wasn’t there, so I turned off the

pressed herself against me.


Her eyes

were shining and she whispered, “Poor

“Let’s have a little efficiency around

baby!” and led me to the small

here,” I shouted to the apartment in

bedroom, fragrant with flowers left by

general. She wasn’t in the living room

her friend. I watched her let down her

either, and I found her note on the

beautiful hair, and then she turned out

kitchen table.

the light. Sometime toward morning I woke

“Darling, here is fresh bread, and cheese and milk are in the refrigerator.

up. The room was shadowy, but I could

Our flight has been delayed for a day,

see she was watching me, leaning over

and I am going to the airlines office to

on one shapely elbow. She reached

make sure they handle our tickets

over and pulled my moustache. I

correctly. No one speaks English there,

caught her hand.

so please wait here and don’t worry.”

I didn’t doubt it. Everything got

The next day, disheveled but sober,

delayed in Poland. The miracle was,

I made my way back by train to

they let us know about it. I must have

Warsaw, in a trip filled with more minor

slept through the telephone call. I

humiliations than I care to relate. They

smiled to myself: I could have slept

didn’t affect me much: I was filled to

through a German blitzkrieg.

the brim with my major humiliation.

By 2 p.m. she still hadn’t arrived, so

Four days later, while I was lying in

I decided to go to lunch at the Grand

bed staring at the ornate molding of my

Hotel. The minute I put on my jacket I

Hotel Bristol bedroom, Greg Smith

knew my passport, visa and airplane

called me. I had a special delivery

ticket were missing.

letter from London at the embassy. I

Within Poland in those days, you didn’t move without the proper

got right up, of course. When I went in to pick up the thick

identification, particularly in a strange

envelope, Greg stared at my unshaven

city. Ever since I arrived here, I’d

state. He was of the old school—a

patted my passport fifty times a day:

shave and a clean shirt every morning,

security blanket. I grabbed for my

or the natives will get you.

wallet. Relief flooded my chest as I saw

“I thought you were supposed to be

all my money, which was considerable,

in West Berlin,” he said, shaking his

still there; but on closer examination I


found I was missing my American

I didn’t answer. Outside, I read the

Express card, driver’s license and

letter. “My dear Paul,” the letter began

probably one or two other cards. I still

in Jola’s familiar, sloping handwriting.

had my return trip to Warsaw.

“I am truly sorry. You perhaps would

Well, I wept. I shouted. I broke a

have helped us out without this

lamp. I drank the bottle of vodka in the

Byzantine plot, but we could not take

refrigerator. I didn’t even know how to

the chance. You remember Pawel, the

call the airport to see if the plane had

bearded man in my apartment? He is

left at 11 a.m. as scheduled, but

one of our best-known dissidents, a

anyway I was sure it had. I’d been

great patriot. We had long planned to

taken, that’s all. I wasn’t ready to

marry, but he could not get work in

figure out why.

Poland, and there was no way for him

to get a visa to leave the country

problem. I’ve already sold some of my

either. It was only a matter of time

sketches to Polska, Poland’s national

before they took mine away too. Or

magazine meant for export. Right now,

arrested him, or something. And then I

my sister and niece have taken over

met you—the same size, the same age,

my condo in Tampa. We shall see.

even the same initials (though ‘Michta’

Life isn’t easy here, but anything

is not his real name). And you could

can happen and I like that feeling. I’ve

get all those things he couldn’t—

even stopped being depressed about

passport, visa, airplane ticket. And so

Alison and now when I look at a woman

we used you. I enclose, however, all

on a crowded bus, I know beyond the

your cards and papers. We are all right

shadow of a doubt that the possibilities


are endless.

Of course, my future husband doesn’t know the entire story. Men are such children, after all. But he is a very good man. And so are you. Goodby. Jola.” I felt angry for hours, stupid for days and miserable for weeks; but gradually I began to feel better. I’d been caught up in some international drama far beyond my importance, and all I could feel in the end was thankful to have taken part in it. And I came to realize that Jola had given me a gift, something I’d needed as much as her fiancé needed my papers—she’d made me feel desirable again. I’m still in Warsaw, trying to get my visa extended. Poland loves its artists and there’s plenty of work for me to do, so Greg Smith thinks it will be no